Every day, we began in the same place. The bathroom, where we reluctantly washed off the vestiges of sleep at 5 A.M., and prepared for the day. We had bathrooms on every floor of the dorm building, and they all looked the same. Long, white corridors—white tiles, white ceilings, white walls, white fluorescent lights—facing six bathroom stalls. The first six people to wake up filled the stalls, and from them, a queue emerged. We went to the bathroom on our floor, found the guy at the end of the shortest queue, and mumbled to him, “After you”, a way of securing our spot. When it was our turn, we hopped into the stall, emerging about five minutes later (take any longer, and we would pound the door, threatening to drag you out naked). Unlike most other boarding schools in the country, the system of stalls meant we thankfully (mostly) never saw each other naked.
Invariably, each morning, we went from the bathrooms to the dining hall.
It was a single large hall on the top floor of one of the two main buildings that made up our school. One end of the hall had a large table usually topped with pots and pans, behind which the kitchen staff stood, feeding us their muck. The rest of the hall was filled with several white tables, and a dozen chairs per table.
No one regulated the sitting patterns of the dining hall, but a pattern emerged anyway. Each class of students—from grades seven to twelve—occupied a distinct row or two. And by looking at each row, you could tell who was best friend with whom, because we divided into our cliques and groups.
Many of us loved to hate the dining hall with exaggerated gusto, partly because the food sucked half the time, and partly because hate was an outlet for how trapped we sometimes felt (this was a school that limited us to two buildings all year long, that banned every electronic device which wasn’t a watch or an iron). We loved to hate the dining hall because every day we had rice for either lunch or dinner. On Monday, rice for lunch and noodles for dinner. On Tuesday, beans for lunch and rice for dinner. Sure, the rice on each day iterated through multiple versions—jollof rice, white rice, fried rice—but it was still rice.
The dining hall was more than where we ate; it was one of the few times everyone could see everyone else in the school, quietly reminding us that we were a community, mismatched and always complaining, but a community nevertheless. In our clique-y self-selected tables, we gossiped about other cliques and about forthcoming exams and about teachers we hated (and the sole non-married female teacher in the entire school half of us tried to flirt with).
Outside of this, not much happened in the dining. One time, there was a mass exodus when Lamawal found a tiny lizard in his plate of rice. On some weekends, the more adventurous members of us broke into the dining hall during its off-hours and stole loaves of bread and cereal from the typically locked breakfast cabinet.
The dining hall and a criminally-overpriced café were our sources of food. Then Lukman transferred in. He was tall, muscular, bearded and quickly got a reputation as a “cutter”—which simply meant that if you pissed him off, he would punch you in the face and split your lips open. Within his first month in NTIC, he secured a deal with a security guard. Each week, the guard snuck in a carton of spicy Ramen noodles, which Lukman sold in packets at five times the price. We only put up feeble complaints—complain too much, and he might just cut you—but he retorted that he need to pay the guard and make a profit, and we could bounce off and keep eating dining hall food if we didn’t like it.
Now, recall that we lived in a fairly restrictive dormitory. Those of us that choked down our pride enough to give in to Lukman—I estimate about 99% of us bought from him at some point—had to find a way to cook the ramen in the absence of kettles. We took bowls, filled them with hot water from the bathrooms, and let the ramen soak in the water for several minutes. After letting it soak, we would mix in the spices. Then, we would eat the ramen, usually with our hands since all the utensils were locked up in the dining hall. A trend emerged—whenever we spotted someone making ramen noodles, we would gather around him like probing vultures, our hands outstretched. Often grumpily, the surrounded guy would give in and share his food, putting a little bit of ramen in those extended palms, a mother forced to feed children she hadn’t had until a minute ago. We would slurp the ramen down our throats, a little taste of something that wasn’t dining hall food.
Hassan only bought ramen from Lukman once, and he broke this cardinal expectation of sharing. We saw him with a packet of ramen noodles, and so we helped him out. One guy got the bowl. One guy filled it with water. Knowing that our help didn’t come without strings, he assured us he didn’t need it.
“Guys, I haven’t had breakfast or lunch or dinner, so…”
We didn’t care. We helped him make the ramen, and then we gathered around him, hands outstretched. Payment time. One palm-ful of spicy noodles please.
Hassan sighed, pulled back his head, gurgled deeply and spit into the bowl of ramen. He mixed in the spit thoroughly, and asked which of us was still hungry. Stunned and resentful, we stalked off, promising him a thousand retributions. For that evening, Hassan got to eat his ramen in peace.
On a school morning, we went from the bathrooms to the dining hall, and from the dining hall to the small granite expanse in front of the two buildings for morning assembly—the assembly ground. We stood in rows ordered by classes, the teachers and school prefects all around us, monitoring for noise-makers. Assembly was where we prayed—two students volunteered each morning, one Christian, and one Muslim. After prayers, we sang the national anthem, and then the school anthem. Afterward, the teachers made any announcements they had to make, and we proceeded to our classes to begin a day of learning.
Mr. Yemi was our discipline master, and the most feared man in the assembly. He was always prowling, during the prayers and the anthems and the announcements, seeking out students who were wearing school uniforms without their belts, whose clothes had not been ironed, whose shoes had not been polished, whose hairs were too long on a Monday (I’ll explain this last bit in a minute). The school prefects helped him out, singling these students out of the assembly lines and into a row in the back, the “shame row”. When assembly ended, and students dispersed to begin the morning classes, those in the shame row stayed behind, awaiting Mr. Yemi’s judgment.
Mr. Yemi’s judgment came in several distinct shapes. “MMS”—or “Monday Morning Style”—was reserved for those of us who failed hair inspections on Monday. See, the school required us to maintain short, well-trimmed hair, and a barber showed up each weekend accordingly. It was our responsibility to see him if needed (for a fairly cheap haircut), or face the consequences on Monday. If Mr. Yemi singled you out for having bushy, overgrown hair, he sent you from the shame row to his office, where he kept a hair clipper in his drawer. Mr. Yemi would then proceed to shave your head, except that he only shaved random portions of it, like an epileptic artist seizing on a canvas. The end result was comical for everyone but you; you had patches of hair interspersed with bald spots. This was Monday Morning Style. And here’s the kicker: he didn’t do this for free. As a fine, you had to pay him several times the original price for his god-awful haircut.
For other assembly crimes—anything from poorly polished shoes to missing belts—we were sometimes made to “frog-jump” for about ten minutes. Frog-jumping had a certain grim finesse to doing it right. You had to squat the right amount of low, knees facing away from each other, pinch your ears with your thumb and index fingers and hop from one end of the assembly ground to the other, over and over and over until time was up. By this time, classes were already in full swing, and we could make out the sneering faces of our comrades from the classroom windows. Frog-jumping was a common punishment across the country though, or was at the very least, not unique to us. We didn’t fear it as much as we feared “Two Buckets”.
“Two Buckets” occurred infrequently, and was reserved for more serious crimes—crimes in the range of foul language, fighting teachers, vandalizing school property. “Two Buckets”, shockingly, involved two buckets. One of them was filled with water. The other, placed ten feet away, was empty. We were given a fork and a task: transfer all the water from the full bucket to the empty one—using the fork! This was often out in the open, around 8 A.M., when the sun was in its scorching high nineties or low hundreds. We usually spent about two hours, moving miniscule amounts of water from one bucket to the next. After two hours, the second bucket would only be about an inch full, but the punishment had been served—our egos had been wounded, and we were (ironically) dehydrated and physically exhausted. Only then were we released.
The assembly ground was used for more than just assembly and terrifying punishments. Sometimes, good things actually happened there, like the Annual Talent Show night, in which we discovered that some of us were surprisingly great singers, dancers, magicians. On Saturday nights, we also had Movie Nights. We would bring chairs from several classes to the assembly ground. We would also help the hostel administrators (who kept all equipment in their room and chose the movies we would watch, sometimes with our input) set up the projector. By 9 P.M., set-up was complete, and the chairs were filled. Press play please. Let the movies begin.
Movie Nights were special to us, even if the movies were ridiculously censored (every kissing scene, no matter how benign, led to some administrator blocking the projector for the duration of the kiss). We had no real alternative forms of entertainment. Sure, we had two fields—a football field and a basketball field, and sure, a few of us were ballsy enough to sneak in phones or iPods and hope we didn’t get caught. But for the vast majority, Movie Nights were the only real way to escape classes and hostel, to inhabit some other world for two hours. Before the movies started, we would talk amongst ourselves, chatter and gossip combining to form an unintelligible whole. But once the intro credits began to display, an electric silence would fall over us, deep enough that for a minute or two, we could hear the low, chirping sounds of a thousand invisible crickets.
Bathroom to Assembly to Class.
That was the routine five days a week. Classes lasted from 8 A.M. to 2 P.M., after which we had lunch and then nap time and then Study Time from 5 P.M. to 7 P.M. and the dinner and then a final study time from 8 P.M. to 9:30 P.M. Study time also took place in classes, during which we were supervised by our hostel administrators. During study time, we did all our homework, prepared for upcoming exams, and went over recent class material. In theory anyway. In practice, we spent the vast majority of that time talking amongst ourselves, (the administrators—most of them anyway—let us, as long as we kept our voices low), and then spent the last ten minutes copying homework answers off the nerds.
Sometimes, fights brimmed to the surface in class, like the time between a student and an English Teacher. We never knew how the fight began, only that the teacher, Mr. Sunday, came around to saying, “You want to fight me? You want to fight me? Come fight me!” And the student proceeded toward Mr. Sunday, and raised his hand to slap him, before the rest of us jumped in, knowing that if we sat back, the situation would escalate and repercussions would follow. So we jumped in, holding back Salim, who was characteristically too hotheaded, who would get into many more fights in the months that followed.
On Sundays, one of the classes on the second floor also doubled as a church.
Half-and-half, we were Christian and Muslim. The Muslims had a small building near the football field for their daily prayers. The Christians used a classroom.
Our imams were the subset of hostel administrators who had been chosen specifically because of their background in Islamic Studies, and our pastor was the Christian Religious Knowledge teacher, who led us in gospel songs and Bible Worship.
We were small enough to know when someone didn’t show up for Church or for one of the five Islamic daily prayers. In the second instance, Dolapo was a constant offender. He never made the first daily Islamic prayer because he claimed it was too early.
And we would scoff. “Too early for God?” But it was his choice anyway, and all we could do was scoff, at least until Christopher decided otherwise. Christopher was one of the tallest boys in the entire school, and he had a voice like a boom-box (for this reason, the CRK Teacher let him lead half the gospel songs and most of the prayers). Religious-driven notoriety followed him like an aura. Where we just scoffed, Christopher grabbed Muiz, who was unfortunately small enough to be grabbed like a ragdoll, placed the struggling, flailing boy on his shoulder and marched him down to our pseudo-Mosque. Some of us saw Christopher come across the House Master, the man in charge of the entire hostel, and when Mr. Ahmed asked Christopher what he was doing, Christopher replied:
“Muiz was sleeping instead of going to pray. He doesn’t want to pray. I’m trying to help him.”
The House Master smiled and nodded indifferently, his signature move. “Carry on.”
The story of our places isn’t really the story of places, as much as it is the story of us. But when you traverse the same few places for six years, those rooms begin to intertwine around your identity. Granite grounds and tiled bathroom floors transcend their inanimate trappings, and map to memories, experiences, pain, joy.
We had stories on assembly grounds, and in classes, and the dining. We had stories under the trees, the trees near the gates that led outside of our little world. Stories of us huddling under those trees before assembly and after class, to get shade from the sun, to avoid nap time, to stare through the gates at an outside world we could barely remember details of. We had stories in the stony backyard of the school, where we washed our clothes, and where Lukman sold overpriced ramen, and where the barber cut our hair. We had stories on the football field, where Daniel once kicked the ball in the wrong direction—or so he said—and it struck a passing Mr. Yemi in the neck. Shockingly, Mr. Yemi simply kicked the ball back to us, and went on his merry way, not saying a word.
And we had stories that took us all over the school. These are the bigger, brighter stories, fewer and rarer. Like when Hassan physically fought the House Master, the most exciting thing to happen in weeks, but not exciting as a spectacle, exciting as different and terrifying and unwanted. Because, even though Hassan was the kind of guy that would spit in a bowl of ramen noodles to avoid sharing any, he was still one of us, and we liked him.
One evening, an extended punishment by the House Master on Hassan and a few other students wore on for hours, until Hassan decided enough was enough and quit, walking into the dorm building, probably toward his room. Mr. Ahmed detached his belt from his too-short trousers and chased after Hassan. By this time, a portion of us saw that something unsightly was developing. We began to congregate into small clusters. We saw Mr. Ahmed strike Hassan, once, twice. Hassan spun around and grabbed the belt off Mr. Ahmed. We held our collective breaths. One of us overcame the bystander effect, stepped forward, running toward Hassan, trying to stop him.
The belt’s brass knuckle struck Mr. Ahmed’s head. It made a sickening thud sound. Splat. Like the head had been split open, and we could expect to peer inside and see blood and brains. There was no blood, just a bruise that would turn an ugly dark brown over the next few days. Mr. Ahmed, stunned and embarrassed,struck Hassan hard, forcing some of us to throw ourselves between them.
“Get out of my way!” he screamed, livid like we had never seen him before. Veins bulged on a strained neck. Veins bulged along arms looking to strangle. More of us, the NTIC Class of 2012, threw ourselves between Mr. Ahmed and Hassan. Twenty to one. He got the message.
We expected trouble to follow, but we weren’t quite sure where it would land or how. The next day was a Sunday. Some of us decided to go talk to Mr. Ahmed, hoping to negotiate peace, to negotiate reasonable punishments—because there was no doubt in our minds that punishment was on the way. Just what kind was the question.
But we couldn’t find him.
Some of us derided the peace-builders. Hassan had done nothing wrong, we insisted. He had defended himself from cruel and unusual punishment.
Sunday came and went without a sign of Mr. Ahmed.
Suddenly, it was Monday, and there he was, around for the morning assembly. We wondered if he would say anything. He did. We weren’t prepared for his words though:
“On Saturday, a student picked a fight with me. This bruise on my head is because of him. This level of disrespect, towards your elders, towards authority figures, in one of the top schools in the country, cannot be tolerated. Effective immediately, Hassan Adamu is expelled from Nigerian Turkish International College.”
The news struck us like a bolt of lightning. Murmurs rippled through the assembly, murmurs that morphed into chaotic screaming. Hassan walked out of the crowd. Dozens of us followed suit. This wasn’t happening.
“Come back!” Mr. Ahmed screamed. But we wouldn’t.
We refused to attend class. They dragged us out of our rooms and promised us suspensions. Some of us folded, and walked to class. The rest of us said “Then suspend us” and walked back to our rooms. We refused to eat dinner. We just stayed in our rooms, daring them to do their worst.
Some of us began talking of a full-blown fight. After all, we did outnumber the administrators twenty to one. If we decided to attack, what could they do?
“No, no, no,” others insisted. “Things are so bad right now. Let’s not make things worse.”
Monday passed, surprisingly without incident. For some of us, things were routine as usual. We attended class and study time and then went to bed. For the rest of us, close to half, we stayed in our rooms, talking to Hassan, whose bags were packed, who was waiting to be kicked out by force. We ate Lukman’s ramen and ate overpriced café chocolate. We skipped everything else. The administrators ignored those of us that stayed in our rooms. They monitored study time like they always had. Then they went to bed.
On Tuesday morning, at 4 A.M., the administrators woke us up, an hour earlier than usual. The principal and vice-principal and Mr. Yemi were with them.
“Let’s talk,” they said. Surprisingly gently. And so we walked out into the assembly grounds, into a blue pre-sunrise morning. We formed quiet, sullen lines and we talked. For a long time, we talked, taking turns, some of us quietly enough, some of us in high-pitched fury, all of us conveying real hurt with every syllable. They listened. They really did, faces sober and reflective and understanding. They said they understood, they messed up, they would fix things.
The day we graduated, we were happy to finally be free. But in the weeks and months that followed, we would realize just how strongly memories bound us to the different places that comprised our high school. We would return periodically for organized football games, suya meat feasts and just general hanging out. We still talk almost every day on a Whatsapp group chat.